• Barn Owl
  • Barred Owl
  • Boreal Owl
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Eastern Screech Owl
    Eastern Screech
  • Elf Owl
  • Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
    Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
  • Flammulated Owl
  • Great Grey Owl
    Great Grey
  • Great Horned Owl
    Great Horned
  • Long Eared Owl
  • Northern Hawk Owl
    Northern Hawk
  • Northern Pygmy Owl
    Northern Pygmy
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
    Northern Saw-whet
  • Short-eared Owl
  • Snowy Owl
  • Spotted Owl
  • Western Screech Owl
    Western Screech
  • Western Screech Owl
    Whiskered Screech Owl

NORTHERN HAWK OWL (Surnia ulula)

northern hawk owlIs it a hawk or an owl? Is it an owl or a hawk? It’s the Northern Hawk Owl! Aptly named for their hawk-like appearance, these unique birds are actually owls. Northern Hawk Owls resemble hawks with their long, tapered tails, smaller heads, and even their behavior. These owls fly with a mix of slow wing beats and long glides, much like hawks. They are often seen perching like hawks too- on the tops of tall trees, often near clearings- always watching for their favorite food: voles. However, because populations of voles and other small mammals fluctuate greatly, so too does the appearance of Northern Hawk Owls. Though normally found in far northern regions, Hawk Owls are considered nomadic, dispersing from their normal range when local vole populations crash.  Northern Hawk Owls tend to inhabit areas far from cities and towns, but be a good observer and who knows? That next hawk you see gliding over the fields in search of tasty rodents might not be a hawk at all. It just might be a Northern Hawk Owl!

Maps provided by The Birds of North America Online and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

  • A medium-sized owl with a broad head, yellow eyes, yellow beak, and a long, tapered tail resembling a hawk

    Males: back is dark brown with white spotting; chest and belly white with dark barring

    Females: same as males

    Young: more grayish-brown with less white marking
  • Height: Males 36-39 cm (14.1-15.3 in), Females 36-39 cm (14.1-15.3 in)

    Weight: Males 270-314g (9.5-11.0 oz), Females 320-345g (11.3-12.2 oz)

    Wingspan Both: 74-81cm (29.1-31.9 in)
  • Range: in North America ranges throughout Alaska and Canada; usually non-migratory, but often winters in northern U.S.; circumpolar at northern latitudes; nomadic- populations erupt in response to vole numbers 

    Habitat: tundra, taiga, sparse forests, burned areas

  • Mostly voles; sometimes other mammals and birds; occasionally reptiles, amphibians, and fish
  • Usually quiet, except during nesting

    Males: fast, burbling trills; “prullul-lullu”

    Females: short, high-pitched trills

  • Nest Site: cavity nester; also nests in stump tops, abandoned crow and raptor nests, and nestboxes

    Eggs: 6-10 (sometimes up to 13) smooth, white oval-shaped eggs, laid asynchronously

    Incubation: 25-30 days
  • Diurnal and nocturnal; perch and pounce hunter; frequently hovers; can seize prey in flight, plunge into snow, and detect prey on sound alone

Northern Hawk Owl Range Map

Northern Hawk Owl Range Map

Northern Hawk Owl Audio

Northern Hawk Owl Facts

Other Names: None
Family: Strigidae
Closest Relative: Northern Pygmy Owl

Conservation Status

Not globally threatened; numbers fluctuate extremely depending on abundance of rodents.


Learn more about ORI's research on this species.